God demands that sinful man repent. John preached repentance (Luke 3:7-ff). Jesus preached repentance (Matthew 4:17; Luke 13:3). The apostles preached repentance under The Limited Commission (Mark 6:12). Jesus told the apostles that repentance was to be preached to all nation under The Great Commission (Luke 24:46-53). Repentance was commanded to all men everywhere (Acts 17:30-31). Clearly, repentance is needed for salvation (Acts 2:38; Acts 3:19; Acts 8:22; Acts 11:18). But what is it?
Perhaps it is the most difficult step in the Gospel plan of salvation. Brother J.W. McGarvey once wrote: “The greatest obstacle to the salvation of men is the salvation is the obstinacy of the human will. It is not very difficult… to induce men to believe the Gospel… Neither is it very difficult to persuade men to be baptized, when they become penitent believers. I have never yet met with a person, who was a genuine believer and sincerely penitent, that raised any question about being baptized. They are ready to go where they are led. The difficulty is to induce them to repent. I have often, in my preaching experienced, studied and prayed and reflected and read, to find some way by which I could have more power in inducing people to repent. I would rather have that power than all the other powers and gifts that could be bestowed upon men as a preacher. But we modern preachers need not be discouraged, I think, on account of our weakness here, because we find, on reading the Gospels, that our Savior experienced the same difficulty” (McGarvey`s Sermons). He felt that the difficulty was not in getting them to believe, or to accept baptism, rather “the difficulty is to induce them to repent.” Some have called repentance “God’s hardest command.” Repentance defined: Vine’s – “Signifies to change one’s mind or purpose.” Gospel preacher T.W. Brents has written, “When used in the New Testament as a command to the alien in order to the remission of sins, it always indicates such a change of mind as produces a change or reformation of life under circumstances warranting the conclusion that sorrow for the past would or had preceded it. When so used it is invariably a translation of the Greek word metanoio; and when used to indicate sorrow or regret it is always from metamelomai – a different word, though improperly rendered the same in English” (The Gospel Plan Of Salvation, 188-189).
(1) Biblical repentance always involves a recognition of sin. Read Acts 2:36-38 and Acts 3:14-15, 19. Prior to Biblical repentance, the people had pointed out to them their guilt of sin. A person will not seek salvation, if he does not know that he is in need of salvation. A person cannot Biblically repent, if he does not understand what he has done wrong. Recognition of sin is not repentance itself. However, one cannot repent without recognizing his sin. Good preaching helps men see their sinfulness, their need for salvation, and the response needed for salvation.
(2) Biblical repentance always involves a deep sense of regret or remorse. “They were cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37-38), when their sin was pointed out to them. They understood their guilt, and it pained them. Paul said, “godly sorrow produces repentance” (2 Corinthians 7:10). Sorrow itself is not Biblical repentance (One could have sorrow over sinful behavior but have no real will or determination to change. Such is not Biblical repentance. Example – One could sorrowfully regret that he made a certain sinful choice in life – but lack the will to change). Though, sorrow does accompany, and motivate Biblical repentance. Regret or remorse is not Biblical repentance itself (One could regret being caught in a sin, simply because he was caught. Example – One caught cheating on his wife may experience the sorrow of the world and say, “honey, I am so sorry!” when what the sorrow is over is being caught. Such is not Biblical repentance). However, regret or remorse does accompany Biblical repentance.
(3) Biblical repentance always involve a resolve to change. Examples of such resolve: Luke 15:18; Jonah 3:5-9; cf. Matthew 12:41. The literal definition of the original term translated repentance is “change mind.” However, Biblical repentance is not just any changing of the mind about a behavior (People can change their mind about a behavior for many reasons. Example – A bank robber might stop robbing banks, because the police are getting too close to catching him, or because he has taken more than enough money for his needs and wants, or for other reasons unrelated to his relationship with God. Such is not Biblical repentance). Biblical repentance always involves the sinner being convicted of sin, resulting in a broken and contrite spirit, and leading to a change in behavior. It is a change of mind and behavior due to submission to God.
(4) Ultimately, Biblical repentance involves a reformation of behavior. Jonah 3:10 says, “God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way…” Matthew 12:41 calls such repentance. True repentance does not stop with just sorrowing. John demanded “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:7-9). True repentance changes one’s behavior. It amends where needed. However, it is not just a change of behavior (Example and true story – I and two elders once confronted two church members living together without marriage. They were unwilling to change their behavior. The elders informed them that they would be forced to withdraw fellowship. They said that they understood. They were waiting for some legal matters to be settled in the near future. Then, once such occurred they said that they would repent and marry. They may have confused confession of public sins and repentance. One cannot schedule repentance) It is change of behavior which starts with a change of mind (how do you pre-plan such?). Johnny Ramsey used to say that in his opinion the single greatest passage on repentance was Matthew 21:28-29 – “A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go, work today in my vineyard.’ He answered and said, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he regretted it (repented KJV) and went.” While the original word here is best translated “regretted” and not “repented,” the ideal of Biblical repentance is expressed in these words.
(5) It involves restitution when possible. The Old Testament demanded such (Exodus 22:1,4,5,6,7-9,10-12; Leviticus 6:1-5; 2 Samuel 12:6; Proverbs 6:30-31). Zacchaeus understood this (Luke 19:8-9). Does not “The Golden Rule” demands it (Matthew 7:12)? (Example – If I took your watch, and you saw me and confronted me about it, and I said, “I’m sorry, I’ll never do it again,” but decided to keep your watch, have I really repented? Do you think that I would be following “the Golden Rule?” Surely not!) A truly changed heart will want to try to make things right , so far as he possibly can.